Car horns honk loudly, and mopeds weave through the packed streets.
People bustle past eachother. From the noodle stands fragrant steam wafts into the street, carrying the scent of vegetables and broth with it. Children laugh, chasing one another around the block. Food vendors pounce on unwary tourists like vultures on fresh meat. My flip-flops slap against the cobblestone walkways of Hanoi. I follow my parents through the crowded streets, my brothers trailing along behind me. Finally, we reach our destination.
The Traditional House of Hanoi is a small building used to teach foreigners and locals alike about the art and architecture of traditional Vietnam. Like most traditional architecture in the Old Quarter of the city, it is quite narrow, and consists of many buildings and courtyards grouped together. This kind of house is commonly referred to as a “tube-house.” Inside, it smells of wood and spices.
To my delight, the walls are lined with dozens of beautiful instruments. I don’t know the names of many of them, but all are covered in detailed carvings and inlaid with abalone or silver. Glass cases filled with traditional jewelry squat along the walls, delighting me and my family with their intricate detail. We explore the house further. It has seven rooms in all, including the bathroom. The front room was used as a shop durning the 19th century, as families of shopkeepers lived there successively until 1945. At that time, the communist government requisitioned the house and five families lived there together. For now, it has been turned into a small museum that we were lucky to come across.
In the corner of one room, an old man sits cross-legged on his mat, painting. His face is wrinkled, and his stringy gray hair is held back by a traditional hat. Absorbed in his work, he carefully brushes coal-black paint across the rice paper. Slowly, a powerful horse begins to take shape, flowing from the artist’s brush. Arching his neck gracefully, his hair flies wildly behind him as he holds his feet high in proud splendor. Although the rest of the family has moved on, I stand there still, captivated by the man’s work. His brush outlines the curve of the horse’s neck, and a soft smile creases the artist’s lined face. He slowly brings his paint and paper to life, obviously taking joy in every moment of the horse’s creation.
Glancing up at me, he notices at last that I’m still here. He smiles kindly, and pats the space next to him on the mat. “You watch long time! Sit here!” I move to join him, and he shows me how he carefully wipes the brush after dipping it into the pot so that he won’t blot the page. I nod, and smile. He speaks a few words of my language, I speak none of his. Communication is hard, but not impossible. He points to himself, and rattles off something in Vietnamese, ending with “Me. Name, me!” I grin. I will never be able to pronounce that. So I point to myself. “Hannah. Hannah Miller.” He looks at me quizzically. “Ham, Ham Ma Meeyer” We both laugh. Still chuckling, he points at me. “In Vietnam, you Long Hao. Ok?” Touched, I smile back at him. “Long Hao?” He grins even wider, nodding vigorously. “Ok! Ya!”
I watch quietly for a few more minutes before he hands me a pad of paper and a brush. “You, try paint.” he commands, setting the bowls in front of me. I laugh. He can’t be serious. But he is. So I try. Apparently I’m holding the brush and the paper all wrong, because he shakes his head. “No. No. No.” He says it over and over, and tries to tell me something in Vietnamese. I shake my head, and he sighs. “Look. Zero.” On his paper he draws a dot. I copy it on my own page. He grins enthusiastically. “Yes!” Barely pressing his brush to the page, he draws six thin lines out from the dot. I attempt to copy this, but end up with six thick lines. As it turns out, using the brushes is much harder than it looks. A few more lines, and a spiderweb materializes onto our pages. A spider flows from his brush, wobbling crookedly to hang from mine. He looks at my page, and smiles. “Good, good!” Taking the page, he signs it with his name and I sign it with mine. Smiling broadly, he gives it back to me.
My family has joined me. They meet my artist friend, and he teaches the boys the spider drawing as well before we leave. He waves goodbye to us, and blesses us many times over in his language. I only wish I could give him the proper responses.
He grins and waves as we walk to the door. I have had many nicknames in my life. Almost everyone in my family and among my friends has a different name for me. But the name the little Vietnamese man gave me has become my favorite. Despite our differences in age, culture, language, and life experiences, we connected.
As we leave the quiet sanctuary and dive back into the crowded city life, I have the page folded carefully in my pocket. I have a feeling it will become even more precious to me over the years. The wrinkled artist with his brush and paint will live forever in my memory.
Signing Off… Long Hao